The danger of accrediting certificate programs

The ASLA board of trustees recently voted to extend LAAB accreditation to landscape architecture certificate programs without consulting other stakeholders. Currently there are just two such programs in the US - UCLA and UC Berkeley. This is a very dangerous and slippery slope that will erode the professional standing and quality of practitioners. The recent trend in allied design disciplines is to move away from accrediting certificates for licensure - specifically interior design. 

The Council of Educations in Landscape Architecture recently sent a letter to the ASLA that includes the following points:

1. Insufficient review of implications relative to other non-degree-granting programs and institutions.

2. Implications on the review of the home institutions offering non-degree programs, whether home institutions are even necessary.

3. With current fiscal challenges, we may see other universities move landscape architecture programs from the core of the university into extension or continuing education divisions as they generate more income. 

4. How would the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s (CHEA’s) accreditation of LAAB be affected by this change? What organization is responsible for accrediting organizations that accredit non-degree-granting programs?

5. Reciprocity is an issue for state licensing boards, and is not under the purview of LAAB. This issue should be vetted with all CLARB member boards, not just an individual representative of CLARB.

6. Many existing and candidacy programs use the standards as a means to ‘push’ institutions toward providing more resources. Lowered standards for administration and faculty have the potential to lower resource allocations for all programs currently under stress.

7. Opening the door to non-degree-granting institutions implies that reasonable accommodations will be made to allow non-degree-granting institutions to achieve accreditation. There may be a legal issue if institutions find it impossible to do.

8. If a program offers an education “equivalent to a degree,” then it ought to be offering a degree, rather than a certificate. If it does not choose to do so, that may constitute an institutional problem, but surely not a national one.


So I ask archinect readers to consider if certificate programs are appropriate means to educate professionals in the 21st century?

Since universities make significantly more profit and so have a financial incentive to offer degrees through continuing education/extension programs. Will abolishing traditional departments with tenured-faculty and replacing them with adjuncts really serve the discipline or the public?

Broadening the diversity of practitioners is a noble goal, but are certificate programs really the best way to achieve this goal? (this was the rationale for the ASLA's trustees vote)

Mar 13, 12 3:32 pm

Would a certificate somehow not provide the appropriate knowledge required to be a landscape architect?  Alternately, would the certification allow someone to fully call themselves a 'landscape architect', or would they take some kind of lesser position (sort of like if architects were to have institutionalized positions for 'architectural technician' or 'architectural designer')?

Teaching technical skills to someone is one thing, but I think the point of requiring a full degree is to teach people some kind of intangible thinking process.  If certificates can do that, I'm all for it; in my experience, they usually don't.

Really, the future 'professional class' should be learning and closely working with the people who are doing research in the field (the point of tenure-track professors?), so that they can be current on the thought processes and leading-edge technologies that go into what makes a field unique.  If you're a worker-bee, a certificate is probably okay to show that you have specialized knowledge, but not to make decisions as a full professional.

Not that this directly applies, but there's a huge rush to require degrees for things that do not really require degrees.  It's incredibly inefficient for us as a society to require someone take years and years of schooling to do a job that requires far less preparation and specialized knowledge to start.  It's even worse when the degree is required only as a point of entry, and then all actual knowledge is gained through on-the-job training (thus rendering the degree knowledge essentially useless except as a means of getting into the proper 'headspace' of the profession).

Mar 13, 12 5:02 pm
Dani Zoe

This sounds interesting, but what constitutes a "certificate program?" Is it essentially a minor focus in Landscape Architecture?

If it is then I certainly agree that this would have a negative effect on Landscape programs across the country, programs just beginning to gain popularity. If I understand it correctly, a student could get a professional degree in Architecture, minor in Landscape Architecture, and become registered as both?

Mar 13, 12 5:27 pm

Here are descriptions of  UCLA's & Berkeley's programs. Both require about the same number of academic units as a full-blown MLA (UCLA costs $37k, and Berkeley will set folks back $20k - so they are about 1/3rd the cost of an Master Degree from the UC System, but UCLA is about the same cost as Cal Poly's MLA).

But because they are operated out of the extension programs they are not considered degrees, nor are the accredited (though the CA LATC accepts the certificate for licensure). There are no full-time faculty, all the instructors are adjuncts. I don't know the full history of why these programs are not degrees, but UCLA and Berkeley have stated clearly that there is not possibility of making them full-blown academic departments offering degrees.

MMF - that's a good point about the rush to require degrees for everything. So do you think that the professions of architecture and landscape architecture benefit from requiring professional degrees? [Full disclosure, my grandfather took the apprenticeship route to becoming an architect in the 1930s - but then the discipline was significantly different from today.]


Mar 13, 12 7:18 pm


needing a licence to practice interior design is the most retarded thing I have heard in a while.  Anything to make a buck I guess.  Really what's the worst that can happen.  universities need to stop trying to turn every profession into a state regulated money pit.  How about this...if you suck at interior design someone gets an ugly design and they sue you.  Big deal!  do we really need to protect the public from these people.  What a waste of time and resources.


Mar 13, 12 8:54 pm

One does not need to a license to practice interior design in the united states. Twelve states have a registration act that allows a certified interior designer to stamp certain kinds of documents -- my impression is that in most cases everything except the kind of structural specifications that most architects would sub out to an engineer anyway.

Mar 15, 12 10:40 pm

Money money money.   People will become less and less inclined to go into debt for 30 years for a "degree" that is mostly useless classes.  Certificates seem like a reasonable "more than highschool, not as much as a degree" in between.


Personally, I fail to see the logic in so many requirements/licenses.  It has nothing to do with integrity, design skills or a better world to live in.  The only justification I see is old establishments trying, desperately, to maintain some control over things (which is more or less pointless/irrelevant).


This, of course, will erode U's and probably spark endless battles.  But the way the education system is now, requiring an absurd amount of "education", is ridiculous.  I have two degrees (3, actually), countless "education" hours, but could have easily gotten the same architectural knowledge in 3-4 years (well, design would take that long, for the "expertise" probably more like 1 year, so if  you don't care about design, then you really don't need much schooling).

Mar 15, 12 11:18 pm

Well apparently with a degree in architecture you can fake it in UX or UE or whatever acronym is popular this week. But in software fields they give you a certificate after sitting in  a conference room for a day, so I don't imagine it has the same income potential.

So Barry, what is the threshold between a degree program and a certificate in the proportion of units led by tenured faculty? According to the AAUP 70% of college credits last year were taught by adjuncts, including (if I recall correctly) by you. Has the teaching you are doing this year really become that much better?

Berkeley and UCLA have been on this slope since the early 90's -- you can read all about it in David Nolbe's book "Digital Diploma Mills." 


Mar 16, 12 12:36 am

I did this program in San Francisco (Berkeley Extension), part time over the past couple of years and thought it was excellent. See the curriculum here.  

It's worth noting that 60% of students who enroll only do so to beef up their portfolios and resumes before transferring to a MLA program. 10% just take one or two classes for fun. 

The other 30% are typical working professionals looking to transition into a new career but don't have the time or resources to commit to a 3 MLA program. This is similar to an executive MBA. You pay arm and leg for a very good education and invest huge quantities but only end up with a certificate rather than a degree. 

Educational institutions need to offer more options across the board to accommodate the masses. Certificate programs are a great solution. 

In my experience, the teachers were extremely current,  savvy and knowledgeable about people, job opportunities, latest trends and techniques and also did a great job bringing in a mix of academics and professionals for fresh perspectives. 

I definitely trusted these teachers with my education more than the professors in undergrad. I highly support this path and see no need to dissolve these programs what so ever. 



Mar 17, 12 6:23 am

 "It's even worse when the degree is required only as a point of entry, and then all actual knowledge is gained through on-the-job training (thus rendering the degree knowledge essentially useless except as a means of getting into the proper 'headspace' of the profession)."

I understand the first part of your argument MixmasterFester but the above statement could also describe many architectural degree programs which focus on theoretical knowledge with the assumption that practical skills will be learned on the job.

I would love to see more L.A. certificate programs.  Landscape architecture has a serious diversity problem (as in lack of). Hopefully certificate programs will open the field to people who can't afford to step away from earning a living for three years to complete a MLA.

Mar 17, 12 8:49 pm

Diversity in the profession is very important, but reducing the standards is the wrong way to achieve it. Certificates are great as continuing education programs (to supplement, not as the initial method to achieving proficiency). If the certificate programs can prove they exceed the current accreditation standards, then great - let them be accredited - but don't lower the bar for the education requirements for the entire profession. Don't open the door to university administrators to destroy existing degree programs by allowing them to shift to just offering certificates.

So what is the best way to increase diversity in the landscape architecture? Lowering the standards isn't the solution, so what is?

There are lower cost degrees available that are equal in price to the UC extension programs. If time commitment to a full time degree program is the barrier, then there are alternative degree models like co-op based programs (mostly found in architecture), or attending part-time. At Cal Poly, there are many students who do successfully attend part-time - so again, a certificate program isn't the only solution. If we look at other disciplines, why do we want to have the lowest standards - when landscape architecture is more a more complex discipline then interior design?

Landscape architecture faces both encroachment into our area of practice from lots of sources, but significant ignorance by the public of what we do. So increasing diversity starts with widening the awareness of the profession.

The biggest problem with changing accreditation standards is that it really is up to the state boards to decide the licensure standards. Adding certificates to approved (aka accredited) education requires going back to every state legislature to change their laws, just a few years after the profession successfully expanded the licensure/practice laws to cover almost all the states. Just imagine repeating this effort just to change a few words in the law and how much push-back the profession might get if we had to go through this.

Mar 18, 12 2:02 pm

I see what you are saying, but will this really lead to better architecture?  Controlling the path to licensure seems to be more about maintaining a monopoly over it than producing better architects and architecture.  Look at  countries like Germany, Italy, or Spain,  where there is no IDP NCARB etc..  You get out of school and you are an architect.  Seems that we have far more  crap in this country despite all the regulation and mothering.  They seem to be doing OK.  Architecture is not the same as the medical profession where our decisions are final and can have a direct effect on someones life.  There are already checks and balances in place, like building codes, engineers, inspections, etc....  In my opinion, we have been trying to make the profession a profession by making it exclusive, and painstakingly long.  If a certificate program can serve as an alternative path for someone who does not have the means to do a typical university degree, then why not.  If we block these avenues, then we also block whole demographics of people such as the kids of working class and poor parents.  Diversity will be good for the profession.  Shit, do we really want the future to be built by trust fund babies?  I think it would be more beneficial to use all this energy to make sure people already in the profession are doing good work rather than just keeping it hard to get in.  It is all the architects that build crap that degrade the value of the title, because they make themselves replacable by contractors and builders.  We will only gain more respect for these titles if we demonstrate our value to society.  The truth is that the road to becoming an architect or landscape architect is not based on merit, but rather connections and money.  This is what degrades the profession.  We are keeping those out that may have much more potential and talent, but less means to get from point a to point b. 

Mar 19, 12 2:19 am

Barry, I think most of the people who would benefit from this are the kinds of people who are probably already in the field of landscape architecture whether they be gardeners, horticulturists or landscapers.

It reminds me of a recent issue I helped, or rather provided little to no actual solution, someone out with. In coastal Florida, the spodosol soil is free of silt, clay, rocks and has little if any humus or topsoil. It's essentially dirty, acidic and ferreous beach sand.

The county planners and civil engineers of that area only look at peak storm scenarios and actually dig ditches and canals into this soil. But they do little if any kind of stabilization and put almost no long-term consideration to future expenses or other problems cause by surface open-air drainage.

I presented them with a number of options they could choose to remediate the situation— and they all required a stamp from an architect, civil engineer or landscape architect.

And we discovered that over the course of 10 years, a shotcrete-lined ditch or a cantilever wall was probably going to cost the least and require less work from the the county. Of course, turning the ditch into a culvert was even cheaper but the county wouldn't allow.

The problem is, this job really needs a paid professional. The other problem is that a professional's fee would cost more than the actual project. It's not like this project deals with the safety of dozens to thousands of people. And a failed ditch is probably even more dangerous that a haphazardly repaired ditch.

Mar 19, 12 11:33 am

What exactly is more complex about landscape architecture than interior design?

Mar 19, 12 10:33 pm

youspellwrong - both involve people, but the materials used in interiors are dead, don't need to be cultivated to stay healthy, and don't have to deal with weather (rain, snow, drought) or climate change the same way. oh, and the scale of interior projects tends to be limited to a single building, while landscape architecture projects can be several orders of magnitude bigger (think entire watersheds, a multi-state trail systems, cities, other large-scale infrastructure projects). Landscape/regional design projects have diffuse boundaries, deal with many more stakeholders and jurisdictions to. landscape architecture is more then just making a garden, like interior architecture is more then decorating and picking furniture. I've worked on a few interior projects during my time in practice - hands down LA can be significantly more complex (even then architecture) just by looking at the scale of the projects.

Mar 20, 12 12:18 am

I'm sure some of the billion-plus square foot mega-casinos in Las Vegas have more than a half dozen ecosystems and deal with both natural and artificial weather, living, dead, and undead materials and people, and considerable layers of complexity with social concerns that require multiple different kinds of infrastructure. Further, and notably for the discussion we are having, the financial investment in them is certainly orders of magnitude larger than the majority of landscape architecture projects -- and the income for interior designers and architects proportionally larger. One can still make the case that the majority of interior designers can afford a graduate debt load in excess of what the actual median debt is. And perhaps most poignantly, interior design doesn't have the diversity problems that landscape architecture and core-and-shell architecture have today.

Of course, if we want to have a conversation about architecture that deals with real complexity, infrastructure, cost, and diversity, then we are really talking about information architecture.

Mar 20, 12 10:41 am

To be clear we are talking about accrediting certificate degrees, not including certificates as equal requirement for licensure?  I don't necessarily see the harm in gaining diversity in landscape design technicians through certificate programs.  If universities are offering certificates in lieu of a degree, that is the institutions' problem.  A profession is about maintaining the public health, safety, and welfare - as such I don't see a problem with offering certificate programs and recognizing that they can provide education to a minimal competency (much like licensure exams).  To elevate the profession, it is each professional's responsibility to educate the public (as well as ASLAs task).  There are many folks out there w/o a degree in landscape architecture that work in our field above and beyond the minimal competency and I think it would be nice if they could get a relatively inexpensive certificate to boost their resumes if needed.  After all there degree holders that are not exactly your model design professionals. 

Are the medical and legal professions threatened by certified medical technologists and paralegals?  No need for every renderer, CAD operator, planting specialist or construction inspector to have a 3~4 yr degree.  Does it open the door for practitioners to teach more there by cutting into tenured faculty? maybe, but it also may increase teaching opportunities.

Mar 21, 12 1:02 pm

I'm not opposed to having certificate holders able to earn licensure - that is up to each state. But instead of increasing diversity, it likely will create a tiered system that limits professional growth.

The pandora's box of accrediting certificate programs is that this action would open the door to cash-starved universities to scrap their degree programs and just offer certificates instead. This is my main beef with the idea.

Maybe I'm just trying to preserve my job security, but I really do believe that the academic world helps the discipline and provides an essential value that is worth defending. Where else can we contemplate concepts and practices that a client wouldn't pay for until the value is proven? Where else can we research the esoteric and obscure that enrich the intellectual side of our profession? Where else can tough problems be tackled?

Mar 21, 12 1:48 pm

Barry, I see both arguments, but none of this would be an issue if we just reformed the whole title problem.  A nurse gets a masters of nursing degree and has the title RN.  She can go around and say "hello I'm a nurse."  If you do a certificate program you can get an LPN or a medical technician title.  We get an M-arch, a 7.5 year degree, and are considered interns.  People see this and automatically assume that the degree means nothing..  This is what undermines the vaule of an architecture education, and it should not be undermined, because it is the best and most well rounded degree out there!  There is NO clarity in where we stand, and we cannot easily move into different fields because we do not have a marketable title.  Saying I am a x, is different than saying I have an x degree.  Why can't we just create a new category of architect.  Since we can build residential work without a licence anyway, how about the title residential architect.  There is no reason why we should have to call ourselves residential designers when a person with zero education can call themself a residential designer.  We can require an M-arch and the passing of a test.  We can do residential and maybe light commercial.  Not only will this inspire a new generation of young entrepenuers that have little overhead and possibly want to tackle issues like affordble housing, but it will make the degree worth something.  Don't underestimate the power of title.  It has a huge psychological effect on someones self and percieved value, and gets reflected on the degree. 

Mar 21, 12 2:41 pm

Young energy balances out old wisdom, and we are surpressing it with the current system.  If, as 3tk said we had a title such as architectural artist, that could be attained through a certificate program, then who knows what kind of business that can be turned into.  They can do renderings for firms maybe?  It may allow large firms to outsource some work to renderers.  It may allow a young talented renderer the ability to start a really lucrative business.  Without any title there is nothing to market.  Architects know this, and it is why they are so protective of their title.

Mar 21, 12 2:53 pm

New title for graduates under title law?  I could live with it if they have to pass some standardized exam to assure the public of some basic standard of knowledge (equivalent to "fundamentals of engineering" exam required before obtaining "engineering-in-training" title - first step in becoming a professional engineer).  Being an intern to me is the equivalent, just like a medical intern you do need to be prequalified through education; maybe we should just borrow residency from the medical field as it seems to have more prestige.

To some extent I think many architecture school grads have been able to market themselves as graphic designers/urban designers/visualization specialists/etc successfully using their degree as leverage.

Mar 22, 12 12:10 pm

To some extent I think many architecture school grads have been able to market themselves as graphic designers/urban designers/visualization specialists/etc successfully using their degree as leverage.

I think where Barry makes a point is that those things — graphic design, urban design, visualization et cetera — are things that are part of an architectural education.

But if you're going to confer that being skilled and or educated in architecture automatically you excellent at those things, the reverse must be true; those who studied graphic design or urban planning must then also be individuals competent in the basics of architecture.

Mar 22, 12 1:15 pm

But intern leads to "Architect".  Some people may find that they do not want or not need the full title.  There are many niches that could be filled by new grads and a title that conveys our education would be a huge benefit in our ability to either start a business or find work in such a field.  It would also diversify the field overall.  

Mar 22, 12 1:23 pm

And that's where the slippery slope starts— people exchanging longer, rigid and more formal educations for the ability to stamp new skill-sets onto a resume without anyone questioning the longer term implications of how these things erode entire professions as a whole as transients roam from one money pile to the next.

Unlike Landscape Architecture or Architecture, many of the fields that architecture degree holders branch into don't have really any barriers to entering— the most difficult of is probably urban planning but so few laws exist regarding competency requirements for planners. And many people who hire architects as planners fail to remember that there's an entire paper shuffling and number crunching side of urban planning that is completely and utterly boring and that's more than likely not taught in architecture school.

So, as someone on the business side of things, I find it a little unfair that architects can march into positions solely because of the prestige of their degree. And to add insult to injury, I cannot march into most architectural positions because my education or experience isn't legally allowable in 38 states to sit for IDP.

Mar 22, 12 1:25 pm

I graduated from the UC Berkeley Extension Program and have been a landscape designer for about 12 years now.  When I was a student, the program offered classes that taught theoretical and practical skills a graduate needs to enter the landscape profession.  Many students were older (late 20's+ ) and took the classes more seriously since they were paying the tuition and wanted to put in the hours required to complete projects that were complex.  The classes were rigorous and developing the required skills and techniques took a lot of time, energy, and effort. 

When I won an landscape architecture internship at the City of San Francisco, the staff was impressed with the skills I developed from the program, i.e. I could help set up drawings, calculate grading, design irrigation and many other tasks required. 

Some of my classmates joined the program as a way to develop skills and portfolios to enter graduate landscape programs and others, like myself, entered the program to change our careers but we still needed to work. Many of my former classmates are still in profession now.

I believe Landscape Certificate Programs have a place in this profession. When I was looking for work initially, I received mixed criticism of my choice of school, especially from offices who were unfamiliar with the program and its graduates and only considered traditional programs with undergraduate and graduate degrees legitimate schools. But the offices I have worked in have been impressed and pleased to have me as part of their staff; I can actually do a majority of the work required with minimal training. And I continue to hear that many graduates of Landscape Certificate Programs, which there are still only 2 in California, continue to show the profession that we are trained to work in this profession too.

Nov 3, 17 1:37 am

I am graduated from UCLA Extension Landscape Architecture program. I wrote on school’s website about this concern back then here the link.

My classmate passed CLARB section 1 and 2 in the same quarter. The program is very intense. I am now working among Civil engineers without any hesitation. 

To recap: don’t judge the book by its cover. Experience and skills are more important than degree. We are living in generation that all knowledge in the world just right in our fingertips. If I have a choice to take CLARB without school, I would choose not to go school but working directly with nursery, contractors, and firm to learn my craft. School put me into student loan. 

- Landscape Architecture at UCLA Extension’s alumni 

Feb 17, 19 7:00 pm

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